Nearly 300 destructive avalanches during ‘dramatic’ Swiss winter

A total of 299 avalanches causing property damage or injury were reported in Switzerland up to the end of April while 19 people lost their lives.

Nearly 300 destructive avalanches during 'dramatic' Swiss winter
A 300-metre wide avalanche hit the restaurant of the Hotel Säntis in Schwägalp, eastern Switzerland on January 10th. Photo: Kantonspolizei Appenzell Ausserrhoden

That is the balance provided by Switzerland’s WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in a report published on Tuesday.

All but one of the 19 people killed in avalanches during the winter were participating in outdoor sports in unsecured terrain, the SLF said. The only exception was a ski patroller who died on an open ski run in the canton of Valais.

In late April, in what was the deadliest single avalanche accident of the season, four Germans were killed – also in Valais.

A map showing avalanche fatalities for the period from October 2018 to the present.

The 20-year average for avalanche deaths in the six-month winter period is 21.

The SLF drew special attention to the six deaths in the western part of the northern flank of the Alps in the winter of 2018–19. It said these were “caused by snowpack that remained unfavourably bonded for a prolonged period”.

This was described as “an unusual occurrence for the region”.

A dramatic winter

The SLF report paints a picture of a dramatic winter.

Very heavy snowfall followed by storm-force winds at the beginning of the year saw the institute predicting “very high” avalanche danger on January 14th.

There were a large number of avalanches at that time – many of them containing a large amount of “snow dust” and therefore travelling long distances, the SLF said.

However, thanks to structural defences, danger zone maps, and the work of the avalanche authorities, no lives were lost during this period.

Caution is still required

The SLF said people engaging in mountain sports should continue to pay heed to avalanche warnings in spring and summer. Daily reports are still being issued for now and will continue to be published as required in summer and autumn.

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Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert

Due to the heavy snowfall in recent days and more expected until the weekend, an avalanche warning is issued for Switzerland’s southern canton of Valais.

Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert
Avalanche warnings should be taken very seriously. Photo by AFP

Valais authorities said the current avalanche risk level is between 4 and 5, meaning ‘high’ to ‘extreme’.

The population is urged to stay at home. When out, they should obey the signs and especially stay away from the avalanche corridors, officials warned.

Significant amounts of snow have fallen in the area in recent days, dumping 1 metre of snow above the altitude of 2,000 metres in the upper part of the canton. Between 30 and 40 centimetres are still expected. 

The highest risk of avalanches is in the Goms valley, the Zermatt valley, as well as the entire right bank of the Rhône. 

Some particularly threatened areas could even be evacuated, authorities said.

People planning to go skiing in Valais over the next few days should check snow conditions and avalanche warnings in place, especially as many roads, mainly in Upper Valais, are cut off, and a number of villages in the Goms Valley, Lötschental and the Zermatt region are no longer accessible by road or train. 

The Avalanche Bulletin is a good source of information not just for Valais, but for all of Switzerland’s mountain regions.

READ MORE: Is the pandemic to blame for Switzerland's spate of avalanche deaths? 

Avalanches have been particularly deadly in Switzerland this winter, having claimed 14 lives so far — well above the average yearly figure of eight people.

Avalanches have caused casualties in the mountains of Valais, Vaud, Graubünden, Obwalden and Schwyz. 

With many people concerned about the potential for contracting coronavirus on the slopes, the idea of skiing off piste has become more attractive. 

But this practice can trigger massive avalanches, so it is crucial to stay away from unsecured slopes.

READ MORE: Large crowds on Swiss ski slopes spark concern over coronavirus spread